Landmark Status Could Be Last Hope for Senior Building

By Jorge Casuso

The 15 seniors who face eviction from the retirement hotel on Montana Avenue are all older than the colonial-style building with the spacious lawn.

But at 52 years of age, the 18-unit rent-controlled building - which is slated for demolition to make way for a nine-unit condominium --is old enough to qualify for landmark status.

And so on Wednesday night, in an effort to save the distinctive green and yellow structure at 401 Montana Avenue and keep its elderly residents in their homes, the Planning Commission voted 6-0 to explore the possibility of declaring the property a landmark. (Commissioner Kelly Olsen left before the item was called.)

After huddling with city staff, the developers, Wilshire Pacific Equities, agreed to allow the city to conduct a preliminary analysis to determine whether the structure they are purchasing merits consideration as a historic landmark. The analysis will be completed by mid-December, when the commission is expected to determine the fate of the proposed project.

"I think that this commission would be remiss if we didn't at least explore this properly," said Commissioner Eric Parlee. "We know enough about the context of this building that we are going to have to study this further."

"In my mind this is a landmark of sorts, and it behooves us to explore if this is a landmark," said Commissioner John Zinner. "We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't go down that path.

"This has been one of the most interesting hearings," said Zinner, who has served on the commission for more than six years. "We've heard some of the most heart-felt testimony since I've been here."

None of the elderly tenants of the building showed up at the public hearing, but a half dozen of their neighbors pleaded with the commission to save a property they say is a link to the past of a rapidly changing neighborhood whose residents are becoming younger and more transient.

"This is becoming yuppie central, condo central, sport-utility central," said Bruce Daly, who lives in a condominium next door. "Diversity should be somewhat of a standard. This is what Santa Monica is about - preserving this kind of situation."

As a young woman ready to leave home, Dee Shutt said she often dreamed of rooming in the two-story building with the big green lawn. Lately she has been eyeing it as a retirement home.

"I often pass this corner," said Shutt, who lives 15 blocks away. "How as a community can we ever consider this happening?"

Some pleaded with the developer not to let profit blind them from a greater good.

"The first concern comes from the heart," said Barbara Winebright, 68, who lives next door. For years, she said, "I didn't think of seniors cause I didn't want to be a senior. Now I see my kinship with seniors. I'm motivated by something much bigger than I am."

"Be prepared," said Housing Commissioner Kathleen Masser, "to look into the eyes of those seniors when you tell them they no longer have a home."

Landmark status is likely the only measure than can stop the wrecking ball. The proposed three-story Mediterranean-style condominium more than meets the zoning standards for the site, according to city staff. It has fewer units - nine -- than the 13 allowed; more parking spaces than required - 21 instead of 20 --, and a large courtyard entrance with a fountain that provides more landscaping than zoning requires.

"Our overriding consideration was neighborhood compatibility," said developer David Schuman, a principal in Wilshire Pacific Equities. The new design, he said, "is not only compatible, but enhances the neighborhood."

The developers said they also will give the seniors six months notice instead of two and 150 percent of the relocation money required by law. But they added that the fate of the seniors was not an issue before the commission.

"The seniors are not a reason to turn down the project," said the developer's attorney Paul Di Santis.

The developers also noted that the current owners have said they will shut down the senior facility whether they sell the property or not. And they added that under the state Ellis Act a landlord cannot be forced to remain in the rental business.

"We waited because of our sincere desire to delay the relocation until absolutely necessary," Schuman said.

A preliminary report is necessary because the structure did not meet the criteria of a landmark -- which must be at least 50 years old -- when the city last conducted an inventory of the area in 1994, staff said.

"It would be looked at differently now that it's over 50," said Suzanne Frick, the city's planning director